Interview with the author: Elaine Leong

Our very own Elaine Leong’s new book Recipes and Everyday Knowledge Medicine, Science, and the Household in Early Modern England has just come out with the University of Chicago Press. We are super excited to offer you this interview with the author.

TRP: Congratulations Elaine on your new book! We have read it with such pleasure. Ina few sentences, could you tell our readers why they should read it too?

Sure! My book offers a window into the rich and diverse knowledge practices in early modern English households. Using a range of sources such as recipe books, letters and more, it brings into focus what I term “household science” – that is, quotidian investigations of the natural world – and situates these within broader and current conversations about gender and cultural history, the history of the book and archives and the history of science, medicine and technology. Using a number of case studies, I argue that household science involved a range of activities from conducting structured, multi-stepped recipe trials to gaining in-depth knowledge about the natural and material world. I also show that knowledge-making in the home was deeply framed by a number of concerns, from social obligations to household economies to family strategies.

All that said, if you’re interested in 17th century methods for fattening turkeys, pickling samphire, brewing ale or creating a family archive, this is the book for you.

TRP: What drew you to researching household medicine? Why is this important?

The sources! Very early on in my research career, I spent a few amazing days in the Wellcome Library looking at their manuscript recipe collections and was hooked! I had so many questions during those first few encounters with the manuscripts, many of which became central themes in the book. For example, my initial curiosity about how these books were created and how the know-how contained within was tried and tested were developed into chapters 1 (Making Recipe Books in Early Modern England), 3 (Collecting Recipes Step-by-Step) and 4 (Recipes Trials in the Early Modern Household) in the book. For me, recovering the everyday knowledge practices of the household is crucial as it pushes us to recognize that exploration of the natural world can happen in the humblest circumstances and conducted by a wide range of actors.

TRP: Your book contains several beautiful illustrations, including photos from manuscripts. Can you tell us a little about the materiality of recipe writing in the Early Modern England?

For sure. As some RP readers might know, I have long been interested in paper use within the household. Working on this project, I was struck by the many ways in which householders used pen and paper to record and communicate knowledge practices. Many used their notebooks from front and back, entering culinary recipes on one side and medical ones on the other. Others used multiple notebooks to separate different kinds of tasks. Within the books themselves, we see householders annotating, writing over and scrawling out recipes. I use these very material practices to tease out the multi-step assessment processes used in recipe trials.

The cheesecake recipe in the Godfrey family collection is one of my favorite examples as it shows how the family tried over and over again to test and modify the ingredient proportions and baking instructions, only to declare it “not to be write”, i.e. not to be added to the family’s go-to recipe book. This eagerness to preserve or salvage the recipe, as I termed it, is due to the fact that the know-how was afforded both social and epistemic value. If recipe exchange was a way to strengthen social relationships and build networks, it makes sense that householders thought twice (or three times) before discarding the gifted recipe.

Cheese cake recipe in the book of the Godfrey family. Wellcome Library Western MS 2535, p. 5. With kind permission from the Wellcome Collections.

TRP: Since we are in the festive season, could you tell us a bit about ‘Bess’ Turkey’,which you discuss in your book?

Ha! That is one of my favorite episodes in the book. The dozens of detailed letters between Johanna St. John (see here and here) and her steward Thomas Hardyman were a really lucky find and made writing the chapter about household management super fun. In the end, it was difficult to pick and choose between the numerous examples offered by their epistolary conversations. I settled on talking about raising turkeys, maintaining the Lydiard garden and distilling medicines to display the broad range of natural, material and technical knowledge utilised by householders (masters/mistresses and servants) on a daily basis.

The turkey episode was fascinating. At first, I was a little surprised to discover that turkeys occupied such a central place on early modern tables, and reading deeper into the letters, I found the “turkey letters” (as I call them) to be revealing of contemporary knowledge about animals and the difficulties of managing a household from afar. Basically, in this period, Johanna St. John and her family were residing in Battersea but relied upon their country estate at Lydiard Park near Swindon to produce a myriad of foodstuffs from turkeys to bacon to cheese to venison. A run of letters demonstrates Johanna’s particular concerns about her dairymaid Bess’ skills in rearing turkeys. She continually pleaded for more turkeys to be sent to London and repeatedly complained that the sent turkeys were either not fat enough or past their prime. Wonderfully, Johanna tries a number of strategies to encourage or scare Bess into doing a better job and ends up offering detailed instructions on how to feed turkeys. Initially, this seemed like a lot of fuss about poultry but contemporary menus revealed a food economy where one turkey was transformed into a number of meals. Like 21st century cooks, the St. John household first ate their turkey whole and then feasted on the leftovers like cold meat or turkey hash for many meals afterwards. The final piece of the puzzle came when Johanna confided in Hardyman that she’d love a turkey to give away. It turns out turkey was one of Johanna preferred “little presents” (as Felicity Heal terms them), in the vibrant early modern economy of food gifts and returned favors. 

Second to Bess’ troubles with fattening turkeys, my other favorite episode in that chapter involves the runaway gardener and bickering over plant cuttings. But you’ll have to read the book to find out more.

Image of a turkey taken from Conrad Gesner, Historia animalium (Tigvri : Apvd Christ. Froschovervm, anno MDLI[-MDLXXXVII] [1551-1587]). With thanks to the National Library of Medicine.

TRP: One aspect of your work that stood out for us was your attention to recovering the experiences and expertise of servants, not just of gentlemen and gentlewomen? How did you go about this?

This is a wonderful question. As all our readers know, while manuscript recipe books are rich and fascinating sources, they are mostly created by gentlemen and gentlewomen. Early modern gentry households though, as social historians have shown, were filled to the brim with people, each with a specific role. While the mistress and master of the house have received quite a bit of attention in the past, I was really eager to dig deeper into who did what and into the social relationships and power dynamics between the different actors. With my focus on household science, I was also interested in finding out more about what Steven Shapin has termed “invisible technicians”.

As I outlined in the previous question, I was lucky to find the series of letters between Johanna and her steward. Johanna was quite the micro-manager and so it made it possible to understand the various tasks taken on by household servants and the complex web of obligations and expectations held by both parties. Another series of letters, this time about beer brewing and water boiling, between Edward Conway and his nephew Edward Harley further revealed how Conway viewed the Petworth brewers in incredibly high regard, refusing to conduct recipe trials on their advice. The appearance of dairy maids, gardeners, herb women, cheesemakers, brewers, stewards and more in these letters remind us of the need to view early modern households as collective of knowers and makers and to tease out dynamic relations within these communities.

Aside from these two runs of letters,  I also scoured handwritten recipe books for hints of servants’ experiences and expertise. As readers of the book will discover, sometimes these were noted in recipe titles, other times it might just be a change of handwriting. I remain committed to recover the knowledge activities of a wide swath of historical actors. I think that there is still a great deal of work to be done here which makes for many fascinating research projects to come (see for instance Leah Astbury’s project).

TRP: Could you share with us an anecdote or story about your research?

Gosh. This has been such a long project that there are definitely stories, though most are quite nerdy. One thing though sticks in my mind. Years ago, when I worked at the University of Warwick, I sat next to the inestimable Bernard Capp for some seminar or another. In passing, Bernard mentioned to me that he had just read a letter where the writer claimed that he was sent recipes which had originated from the writer’s own collection. I was fascinated and followed-up the generously provided citations. The letter was sent by Viscount Edward Conway to his nephew Sir Edward Harley and one in a series of letters which I now consider one of the most revealing sources about recipe knowledge in early modern England. In them, Conway described how he assessed recipes on paper, assigned expertise and detailed how he sent Harley on recipe hunts or to follow-up on his recipe trials. The Conway/Harley letters formed the central case study for my third chapter “Collecting Recipes Step-by-Step” and were crucial in helping me figure out the rich knowledge practices behind the hundreds of recipe books in our archives. I probably would never have found the letters were it not for the chance conversation. In many ways, this anecdote reflects some of the main arguments of the book – that knowing so often comes from the “practices of everyday life”.

Recipes and Everyday Knowledge is available and also directly from the University of Chicago Press website where readers can 20% off the list price using the code UCPNEW.

Cleopatra’s Eye: The Significance of Kohl in Ancient Egypt

By Hazel Lunn

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in 1963 production of Cleopatra, portraying malachite and galena kohls used in Egyptian makeup. Courtesy of http://flavorwire.com/535384/the-fashions-of-cleopatra-in-cinema

Kohl has been a popular cosmetic in civilisations across the world since prehistoric times, but its association with ancient Egypt is most well-known. We are all familiar with the Egyptians legendary eye-makeup. With Cleopatra as its ‘poster girl’, most famously depicted by Elizabeth Taylor in 1963, the queens signature eye-paint still inspires costumes and makeup looks today. Though the Greeks and Romans also used kohl as an eye-liner, its use in Egypt was much more than simply cosmetic. Used by both men and women of all social classes, the Egyptians believed kohl also had important medicinal, magical and religious qualities.

Cosmetic Use

In the eyes of the Greeks and Romans, excessive adornment belonged only to the prostitutes and favoured more naturalistic makeup, using kohl to finely line the eyes and extend the brow. The Egyptians however shared a different view and smeared kohl over their eyes daily. Wearing both green malachite and black galena in bold designs, kohl exaggerated their eyes to enhance their beauty (Tyldesley 1994, 159). Although she was not Egyptian herself, Cleopatra likely followed ancient traditions wearing beautifully elaborate eye looks, perhaps similar to our modern recreations.

To create these eye paints, kohl was ground in a pestle and mortar and mixed with oils or animal fats on palettes to; then the kohl paint was applied to the eyes using a small stick. Galena, replacing malachite, gradually became the predominant ingredient in kohl cosmetics and its use continued through until the Coptic period; the Fayum mummy portraits display less complicated, everyday use of kohl by both men and women during the Roman period, perhaps influenced more by the styles of Roman women which became popular after the first century AD. As well enhancing beauty, the cosmetic use of kohl could also indicate social rank and achievement, perhaps with more complicated designs worn regularly by the elite (Pak 2009, 108).

Religious Importance

So important was its use in ancient Egypt that containers of kohl, along with various instruments for its preparation and application, were buried alongside the dead. This clearly shows just how essential kohl was in daily life but also in the afterlife, which indicated that it had important religious functions. Kohl was associated with the deities Horus, Ra and Hathor and was regularly used in ritual. Egyptians also exaggerated their eyes with bold liner in veneration of the gods, as they believed it possessed magical properties in providing protection from diseases and warded off the Evil Eye (Tapsoba et al. 2010, 457; Illes n.d., 2).

Medicinal Benefits

Though these magical benefits of kohl may seem irrational to us today, these protective qualities are fully supported by recent studies of the various ingredients found in kohl. Egyptians faced many health issues that effected the eyes; from dust from the desert, to insects and bacteria from the flooding of the Nile, diseases such as conjunctivitis, cataract, trachoma and trichiasis played the population. The proscription of kohl to treat and prevent these illnesses can be found extremely early on in the Ebers papyrus, but were ancient physicians correct to think kohl could heal them?

Kohl contained multiple ingredients that not only added to the beautiful shine of galena, but are also known for their medicinal benefits. Zinc oxide is a powerful natural sunblock, neem has astringent and antibacterial properties and also possesses anti-viral activity like silver-leaf, while fennel and saffron were often used to fight many eye diseases. Other ingredients, such as chaksu and precious gems, were also believed to improve sight (Pak 2009, 110). It has also been discovered that Egyptians synthesised lead compounds (laurionite and phosgenite) to add into their cosmetics, which Dioscorides explains “appear to be good medicine to be put in the eyes” (Dioscorides 5,102).

Although the addition of lead to cosmetics may seem absurd due to its known toxicity, with some pitying the “devastation” kohl must have cause in ancient Egypt, these compounds were not harmful and did actually provide beneficial medicinal roles (Hallmann 2009, 71-2). A biomedical study, which made the news in 2010, ended controversy over the harmful effects of kohl. By analysing various samples found in Egyptian tombs and recreating ancient recipes, reported by Greco-Roman authors, scientists were able to test the effects of these led compounds on skin cells. Amazingly instead of causing lead poisoning, these lead compounds instead triggered an overproduction of nitrogen monoxide (NOo), which stimulates nonspecific immunological defences. This data suggests that the daily wearing of kohl made Egyptian eyes almost immediately resistant to bacterial infections due to the spontaneous response of immune cells. Although concerns about the toxicity of lead, overshadowed its benefits, this study proves that the lead compounds found in kohl did in fact serve a significant medicinal function. Tapsoba therefore argues that these compounds were deliberately manufactured and used in cosmetics to prevent and treat eye diseases (Tapsoba et al. 2010, 457-60). Galena and these other lead sulphides also provide protection from Egypt’s harsh sun by providing a shield from its glare and harmful UV rays (Pak 2009, 109). The addition of these various ingredients to kohl supports the magical protective beliefs of Egyptians and shows an understanding of ancient physicians of the many benefits this cosmetic possessed.

Although kohl was used by the Egyptians to beautifully decorate their eyes, its daily use for religious and medicinal purposes were extremely important. Though the general population may have attributed kohl’s magical healing powers to the gods, physicians and perhaps even Cleopatra herself, understood that the ingredients they added to their cosmetics were effective medicines. Its use, in various forms, has been important to many cultures throughout history and it remains a popular cosmetic across the world today.


Hallmann. A. (2009), ‘Was Ancient Egyptian Kohl a Poison?’ in J. Popielska-Grzybowska, O. Białostocka & J. Iwaszczuk (eds.), Proceedings of the Third Central European Conference of Young Egyptologists. Egypt 2004: Perspectives of Research. Warsaw 12-14 May 2004. 69-72. Pułtusk: The Pułtusk Academy of Humanities.

Illes. J., n.d. Ancient Egyptian Eye Makeup

Pak. J. (2009), ‘Review Kohl (Surma): Retrospect and Prospect’, Pharmaeutical Sciences 22, 107-122.

Tapsoba. I., Arbault. S., Walter. P., and Amatore. C. (2010). ‘Finding Out Egyptian Gods’ Secret Using Analytical Chemistry: Biomedical Properties of Egyptian Makeup Revealed by Amperometry and Single Cells,’ Letters to Analytical Chemistry 82, 457-460.

Tyldesley. J. (1994), Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt. London: Penguin Books.


My name is Hazel Lunn, I am 21, and I have recently graduated from Cardiff University with a degree in Ancient History. I am a food lover interested in gender studies and environmental issues. My degree has sparked my interest in writing and my previous love of makeup inspired my blog on the significance of khol in ancient Egypt. I hope you enjoy reading my findings.

Introducing the UG series

By Laurence Totelin

For the last five years, the Recipes Project has been running an annual September Teaching series. That series has proven extremely successful, and the blog is now a mine of resources for any teacher in search of inspiration. Repeatedly, posts published as part of the series have demonstrated the extraordinary pedagogical power of historical recipes, as texts or as interface between the written and the material.

Parallel to this, fostering the career of younger scholars has always been part of the Recipes Project’s mission. It has published — and continues to publish — the work of MA and PhD students, some of whom have now settled into their careers, academic or otherwise.

Inspired by my own experience as a contributor and editor of the Recipes Project, in the academic year 2015/16, I decided to incorporate blogging into the assessment of my Cardiff University UG module on Greek and Roman Medicine. I was overwhelmed by the quality of the work of my students. Most of them had neither studied ancient medicine nor blogged before, but they took on both challenges! They inspired me to push myself further as a teacher. 


Advert for poducts of the Pharmacie Centrale de France representing a professor teaching pharmacy to students in mid-16th century Paris. Colour lithograph, after 1889. Source: Wellcome Images

They also sowed a seed in my mind: what about starting an undergraduate series for the Recipes Project? So, this month, for the first time, we are showcasing the fabulous work of  four undergraduate students: Joanna Cunningham, Allison Shichen Du, Eboni John, and Hazel Lunn.

We hope that our readers will enjoy their work. We also hope that those readers with teaching responsibilities will consider encouraging their UG students to blog and share their fresh insights into historical recipes.


‘Used With Constant Success’: Animal Ingredients in Eighteenth-Century Remedies, and their Success in the Beauty Industry

It’s Halloween, so it’s fitting that I’m writing about slimes and sticky oozes, though somewhat misleading. This post considers three common animal-derived medicinal ingredients found in eighteenth-century recipes. Earlier this week, Lisa Smith looked at a relatively unusual ingredient: puppies. Today’s ingredients, however–snails, honey, and asses’ milk–were staples in domestic medicine.

Although my research is on eighteenth-century domestic medicine, I also have a personal blog on lifestyle, baking, and beauty. Here we’ll explore the historical uses of these ingredients, and you can visit my blog to find out why these same ingredients are celebrities of the beauty community – I do my best to put their efficacy to the test!

One of my favourite pastimes is experimenting with skincare and makeup, and it’s intriguing that ingredients once treasured for their medicinal and beautifying properties have had resurgence in the beauty industry. A historical perspective certainly makes me think about modern cosmetics differently, especially in relation to their medicinal properties and efficacy claims.

Jennifer Sherman Roberts has written on the efficacy of an early modern pimple remedy, and the work of Michelle DiMeo, Rebecca Laroche, and Edith Snook investigate the use of animals in medicinal recipes, and cosmetic practices in early modern England[1].  

Snails:

The garden snail was one of the most used animal ingredients in eighteenth-century remedies. In my doctoral research, where I examined 5,000 recipes from 27 eighteenth-century manuscripts, I found 104 references to snails (4% of all animal ingredients).

R. Bradley, A philosophical account of the works of nature... Credit: Wellcome Library, London. 

The snail was claimed to be ‘one of the cleanest feeders in the world’,[2] and seventeenth-century physician and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that ‘the reason why they cure a consumption is this; Man being made of the slime of the earth, the slimy substance recovers him when he is wasted’.[3]

In today’s cosmetic industry, snail gel is used as a moisturiser and skin brightener (see my blog for details), but the most common use of snails in eighteenth-century recipes was in the form of a distilled water. This was prevalent remedy for respiratory conditions like consumption.

A mid-eighteenth-century recipe book belonging to the Arscott family from Tetcott, Devon has two consecutive snail water recipes. The first, titled ‘for a Consumption’, used a peck of grey snails wiped clean and distilled in both asses’ milk and red cow’s milk alongside dates, raisins, liquorish, and aniseed. A second recipe, attributed to Lady Robert Russell, noted its efficacy by claiming that she had ‘experienced good in Cough, Heatick, Heals a Sharpness in the Blood’. Lady Russell received this recipe from Dr Francis Willis (famous for treating the madness of George III).[4]

See Jennifer Sherman Robert’s post on snail waters and spa treatments.

Honey:

Honey was the most frequently cited animal-derived ingredient in my research. It was used for plasters, poultices, and ointments, and was a sweetener. Honey was used for treating swelling, cancers, ulcers, and eye complaints. ‘A poultis for a Swelling by My Aunt Dorothy Pates’, for example, used honey as a binding agent.[5] Another recipe, said to be ‘approved by the best doctars [sic]’ used a clove of garlic saturated in fine English honey and put in the ear for eight days to cure pain and restore hearing.[6]   

Hair Water from the Duchess of Marlborough using honey. Kent History Centre, U1590/C43/2, f. 75r.

Honey has long been valued for its restorative properties, and today it’s a ubiquitous ingredient in hair conditioners and skincare. It also featured in eighteenth-century hair treatments. The Duchess of Marlborough was claimed to have ‘preserved her hair good to her death’ by using a hair water created from two pounds of honey distilled with rosemary flowers and wire of the vine [grape stems?]. This hair wash was said to thicken and ‘give it a gloss’.[7] On my blog, you can see how a similar hair wash using rosemary and honey turned out!

Asses’ Milk:

Another animal-derived ingredient that has been used since ancient times is asses’ milk. It was used in the eighteenth century to treat respiratory ailments. Lisa Smith has also written about the medical uses of asses’ milk on The Sloane Letters Project.

Returning to the Arscott Family, Mrs Arscott (Thomasine) suffered from breast cancer and her husband John recorded several cancer treatments in their collection. It’s unclear from the records exactly what kind of cancer she had, but it’s evident she was in pain. Mrs Arscott tried different remedies prescribed from physicians, ranging from cardus Benedictus (thistle) to opiates.    

A Mr Ranby advised in December 1748 that she must ‘never omit Asses Milk’ in her cancer treatment (and also not omit opiates). This description is followed by a detailed account of Mrs Arscott’s experience with the treatment, which did not agree with her and she had a ‘terrible return of her complaints’.[8]  

Mrs Arscott’s treatment using artificial asses’ milk. Wellcome MS. 981, insert.

It was also common practice to create an artificial variety, and Sally Osborn has written about the creation of artificial asses’ milk. Once again, the snail proves his worth as it was used to make this mock version (more information see here). Both genuine and artificial versions of asses’ milk treated respiratory problems.

For treating a ‘hectic or inward heat’, a recipe from Dr Ratcliff found in multiple recipe collections called for snails with pearl barley and candied eringo root, boiled and strained.[9] The frequency at which both snail based and genuine asses’ milk were recorded in recipe books, alongside claims of their efficacy, is testament to the credibility of these animal ingredients.

From slime and ooze to elixir of life, animals (and their derived products) held great significance in medicine and cosmetics in the eighteenth century. The snail, honey, and asses’ milk were clearly valued for their medicinal properties, and it’s fascinating that they have renewed purpose in the beauty industry. Today’s miracle anti-aging elixirs, hair tonics, and brightening creams don’t contain revolutionary ingredients. They are in fact, old news – tried and tested since 1700!

(And earlier…)


[1] Michelle DiMeo and Rebecca Laroche, ‘On Elizabeth Isham’s “Oil of Swallows”: Animal Slaughter and Early Modern Women’s Medical Recipes’, in Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (eds.), Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 87–104; Edith Snook, ‘“The Beautifying Part of Physic”: Women’s Cosmetic Practices in Early Modern England’, Journal of Women’s History, 20, 3 (2008), pp. 10–33.

[2] As stated in M. Mascall’s late 18th–early 19th C. collection: Wellcome Library, London, MS 7875, f. 96.

[3] Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis: or, the London Dispensatory (London, 1708), pp.108–9.  

[4] Arscott family, ‘Physical Reciepts [sic]’ (c. 1725–76). Wellcome Library, London, MS 981, ff. 8r.-v.

[5] Abigail Smith and others, ‘Collection of medical and cookery receipts’ (c. 1700).  Wellcome Library, London, MS 4631, f. 7r.

[6] Ibid., f. 23 v

[7] Grizel, Lady Stanhope (née Hamilton), ‘Recipe Book (culinary and medicinal)’ (1746), Stanhope of Chevening Manuscripts. Kent History Centre, U1590/C43/2, f. 75r.  

[8] Wellcome Library, London, MS 981, insert.

[8] Ibid. 53v.